Werewolves are one of the most recognizable types of monsters in modern culture. They are almost constantly featured in both mainstream and niche fiction, and the number of interpretations of the same creature grows every year. While the details of the stories vary, the core idea of a werewolf is a man or woman becoming a beast when the full moon appears in the sky. They lose control of their body and are prone to harm their loved ones or anyone else in the close vicinity.
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At times the rules of the story allow for a different type of behavior but the core idea of transformation into a more animalistic form is always present. Despite the simplicity of the idea, it is tied to unexpected origins and carried different significance to people throughout the ages. This paper will outline the background information on the monster as well as explain some of the more unique interpretations of werewolf stories.
The idea of people changing shape into wolves goes back deep into the Middle Ages. While instances of shapeshifting into animals were common in Greek mythology, the origin of modern beliefs lies close to the Slavic belief in vampires. Originally, there was no clear distinction between the two monsters but with time, the beliefs diverged, and they became separate. The exact reason for the deviation and formation of the modern myth is unclear, as a variety of Germanic and Scandinavian influences are also present in the idea of a werewolf. The modern definition is closer to the ravenous vampire/werewolf “vlkolak” from the Slavic myths than other, more magical types of wolf-men (Ginzburg 111).
In modern history, the idea gained popularity after a string of cannibalistic murder cases in 1500s France. At the time the idea of werewolves was associated with heretic behavior, but these events caused it to revert to the concept of a beastly human. While no actual werewolves were ever found, it did not deter people from believing in their existence as new murders and animal attacks occurred.
In some cases, people were accused of being werewolves during witch trials and sentenced to death or imprisonment. As years passed, folk beliefs stopped being taken seriously, and the idea of werewolves became only a myth. Werewolves and vampires are still often paired up in modern stories, but the connection between them became almost intangible, and currently, these monsters have very distinct mythologies attached to them (Walter 167).
Fear of the Beast
One of the primary fears that werewolves represented in their original incarnation were the fear of powerful and uncaring beasts. Wolves, foxes, bears, and other woodland predators used to periodically attack villages at night. People’s cattle would be left mutilated, someone could be mauled to death, and children could be killed or taken by the beasts. Larger creatures that were not afraid of light and people, such as those that were sick or ravenous, posed a great threat to people and their unusual behavior gave an impression that they were originally human.
The lack of understanding of animal behavior, coupled with the distinct possibility of harm and death made those fears extremely potent. In areas where people had to live during invasions of various tribes, the idea became even more believable, as wearing wolf skins and howling was not uncommon among some cultures (Walter 169).
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Fear of People
With time, the idea of werewolves transitioned from being based on humans that were beastly to common people becoming monsters. People were always afraid of other people who wanted to cause them harm, but at times even a close friend may behave in an aggressive fashion. Cases in which a seemingly upstanding member of society commits a horrific crime began to be associated with a transformation into both a metaphorical beast and a literal one.
These ideas would eventually lead to some of the most iconic portrayals of werewolves in fiction. The idea that a decent person is completely aware of their transformation but is incapable of stopping it allows for a strong sense of tragedy and pathos. At times they try to hide from the world as a hermit would, or chain themselves in a basement, but sooner or later, they are unable to control it, and tragedy strikes. This interpretation of the monster became especially popular in modern myths, as it creates a sympathetic protagonist or antagonist for a story (Schwalb and Romero 146).
The modern interpretation also holds a number of connections to real-life issues. A person who turns into a werewolf and harms their loved ones may be seen as an alcoholic or drug addict that becomes violent under the influence. People with anger management issues also may be represented as werewolves due to their quick turn to violent behavior. Before the age of psychology, mental illness also reminded people of werewolf behavior as one of the original terms used or mentally ill was “lunatic” meaning a person who is either obsessed or behaves weirdly during the full moon (Ekman 452).
Nazis and Werewolves
A relatively modern addition to the idea of werewolves comes from World War II. Due to the Germanic origins of the word “werewolf” the military command of Nazi Germany utilized this term in two key elements. One of the main headquarters of Adolf Hitler was named “Werwolf.” It was located in Ukraine and was active between 1942 and 1943 during the German invasion of Eastern Europe. The name was chosen due to Hitler’s codename of “wolf,” and all the other headquarters held similar wolf-related names.
The more notable use of the term came from “Operation Werwolf” which attempted to create an elite armed force behind the lines of allies who were advancing through Germany. The idea held no supernatural element. However, the idea of Nazi scientists or occultists creating werewolf soldiers became common in modern folklore. The same idea can be seen in both western media as the dream sequence of “American Werewolf in London,” and eastern media with various Japanese novels and comic books portraying secret Nazi werewolf forces (Melchior 35).
While it may seem that this representation does not have a connection to real fears or anxieties of the modern world, it can be interpreted as fear of people holding dark beliefs under the surface. With the recent rise of nationalistic movements across the world and the reemergence of neo-Nazi groups, it is clear that people are still capable of following inherently evil ideas. In the first years of the war, Nazis were unstoppable and committed almost inhuman atrocities. However, they were human, and this notion is terrifying. Nobody would have imagined that a person who was a normal mechanic in 1938 would be involved in a massacre only a year later, but such cases were common. The werewolf in these stories represents the terrifying ability of a person to become a monster.
The core idea of a werewolf is a person becoming a beast. This idea was explored in a great number of iterations over the centuries and is still relevant today. At times people are afraid of their friends, family members, and even themselves because they do not want to harm anyone. Thankfully, real life has a number of support groups and rehabilitation methods to help such people, while there is no cure for being a werewolf in fiction.
Ekman, Stefan. “Urban Fantasy: A Literature of the Unseen.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 27, no. 3, 2016, pp. 452–69.
Ginzburg, Carlo. “Conjunctive Anomalies: A Reflection on Werewolves.” Revista de Estudios Sociales No.35, vol. 60. 2017, pp. 110–18.
Melchior, Ib. Order of Battle: Hitler’s Werewolves. Open Road Media, 2014.
Schwalb, S. R., and Gustavo Sánchez Romero. Beast: Werewolves, Serial Killers, and Man-Eaters: The Mystery of the Monsters of the Gévaudan. Skyhorse, 2016.
Walter, Brenda S. Gardenour. Our Old Monsters: Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema. McFarland, 2015.